An Indigenous community in Queensland’s South Burnett is crying out for help after losing more than 10 people to suicide in the past year.
Almost everyone in Cherbourg, 250 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, has a loved one who has died by suicide.
Alex Speedy, 35, said the grief and loss in the community of 1,200 had become inescapable.
“I just lost a friend recently,” he said.
“It’s hard growing up here, seeing them every day and then a few days later … not seeing them.
“I’ve had family members pass on.
“I just don’t want to see that anymore.”
Young men account for most of the deaths, so Mr Speedy has stepped forward as a champion for mental health in the community.
“It’s important coming out the other side and talking about it,” he said.
“If I don’t talk about it, it’s going to affect me too.”
In a town with an unemployment rate of nearly 50 per cent at the last census and a long history of disenfranchisement, Mr Speedy said it would take much more than raised voices to solve the crisis.
‘No trust’ in services
Mr Speedy’s aunt, Dolly Davidson, has lost two sons to suicide in the past few years.
“Whenever we lose someone in the community, it takes me right back to losing my two boys,” she said.
Ms Davidson said she reached out to multiple services for help for her younger son, but they were not approachable and did not understand what he was experiencing.
“From 10 years old to 17 – he passed when he was 17 – I tried,” she said.
“There were nine other young men [who have died] … who used to attend school with my sons.
“You’re talking about 11 kids from one school and that’s a lot — 11 kids out of 20.”
Ms Davidson and others in Cherbourg formed a Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN) to support grieving families and those struggling with mental health issues.
The members act as first responders, but the work is taking its toll on volunteers.
“It’s very tough, especially when you got no support from organisations,” Ms Davidson said.
“Honestly, I have no trust in organisations.
“Organisations and other people need to sit down and listen to the people of the community, because we know what’s going on in the community.”
Few local providers
According to the council there are 67 mental health providers registered as working in Cherbourg, but most are based outside the community.
Community services manager and SPAN member Edwina Stewart said the mark was being missed when it came to treatment and prevention.
“What’s not being addressed is the underlying stuff that’s happening to our families, the amount of grief and loss we’ve been going through,” she said.
“It’s like a dark cloud over our community.”
Darling Downs Health has two adult mental health clinicians based in Cherbourg full-time and is operating its own suicide prevention program in the community.
The Cherbourg Regional Aboriginal and Islander Community Controlled Health Service (CRAICCHS) employs a psychologist to visit the town once a fortnight and arranges appointments with external psychologists.
Holistic models needed
Ms Stewart and other local leaders want to see treatment models adjusted to be more culturally appropriate, with a focus on preventative care and support outside business hours.
To achieve this, she believes services need to incorporate regular consultation with elders and the local SPAN.
“We need government to work alongside us,” Ms Stewart said.
“Don’t do things for us, don’t tell us what to do, but walk with us along the journey.”
She also believes health providers need to place more emphasis on overall wellbeing, rather than making physical health the primary focus.
“I believe we need more therapeutic stuff — getting [young people] back into culture, getting them connected into sport … connecting them with their ancestry,” she said.
Human rights activist Grace Smallwood said Cherbourg’s suicide rate was reflected in Indigenous communities around Australia.
“We are at a crisis stage of hopelessness and helplessness,” she said.
“You’ve got hundreds of services getting large amounts of money … and they’re not utilising the grassroots, First Nations peoples as key players.
“A lot of those people that are receiving money … they’re [recording] that they’ve got great KPIs when they don’t even go and visit the communities.”
Dr Smallwood said unresolved intergenerational trauma, unemployment and culturally inappropriate service delivery all played a role.
“We need programs that are not controlled and dominated by Western perspectives,” she said.
“It has to be community based, by respected people.
“The only people that know how to deal with the solutions to our problems are our own people, but they need the human and monetary resources.
“Once those changes are made, the deaths will start slowing down.”Internet Explorer Channel Network